As a Texas medical doctor and Medical Malpractice attorney, I am providing this case law update and commentary.
As part of Texas’s tort reform laws, enacted by the Texas legislature in 2003, one of the requirements in order to file a medical malpractice claim, was the furnishing of a medical expert’s report within 120 days of filing the lawsuit.The 5th District Court of Appeals says that the legislation serves the state’s interest in preventing frivolous medical liability lawsuits and related health care system costs. This medical expert report requirement is also known as the Texas’ certificate-of-merit law, and is similar to many other states’ medical malpractice reform.
Recently Texas’ certificate-of-merit law passed another constitutional challenge after the 5th District Court of Appeals validated the requirement for plaintiffs to file an expert report demonstrating the merits of a medical liability case.
The 5th District Court of Appeals rejected arguments that the legislation amounted to an unconstitutional special law that treated medical liability lawsuits differently from other cases. Further, the court said that the provision subjecting plaintiffs who file a deficient report to financial penalties does not violate the constitutional separation powers.
Trial court judges have discretion to determine the amount of monetary sanctions and to inquire whether plaintiffs made a good-faith effort to pursue a medical malpractice or wrongful death case.
The August 12 opinion states that the expert report requirement “rationally relates to the interest of the state to prevent medical practitioners from defending frivolous claims at a high cost to the health care system.”
According to the Texas Medical Association’s statistics, since the 2003 law was enacted as part of a liability reform package that included a $250,000 noneconomic damages cap, Texas has seen a 50% drop in medical negligence cases, a 30% reduction in physicians’ liability insurance rates and more than 20,000 newly licensed doctors.
Critics of the law state that those changes may have happened anyway because of the increase in Texas’ population, which boomed as a result of the oil and gas business and the resulting need for more physicians and that as a function of doctors per capita, Texas is actually less served by the total number of physicians. So the new law is a red herring and an excuse for the insurance companies to be treated as a special interest deemed worthy of protection. Is it any wonder that the shiniest, tallest and the most aesthetically pleasing buildings in Texas are owned by insurance companies? Follow the money trail my friends.
The Texas liability reform package is now being touted as a role model for other states to deny plaintiffs their day in court.
The added expert report requirement means an extra layer of protection for physicians and hospitals. Plaintiffs in medical malpractice claims have to show ahead of discovery that they have a meritorious claim, whereas in any other personal injury claim, for example a car wreck injury case, you can take depositions and exchange discovery to determined what happened. In 2006 the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that invalidated the state’s certificate-of-merit statute as a special law.
The Legislature’s imposition of mandatory sanctions, of the defendant’s cost of defense and attorny fees, if the medical expert’s report is considered defective, usurps judiciary’s powers and places an unfair burden on plaintiffs who make a good-faith effort to pursue a case. The cost of defense and attorney fees can be in thousands of dollars that the plaintiffs will have to pay.
This ruling arises from a wrongful death claim Joshua Hightower’s parents filed after their son died from complications of rabies contracted during a kidney transplant at Baylor University Medical Center in 2004. Other patients who received organs from the same donor also died of the disease.
The Hightowers filed two physician expert medical reports supporting their claim that the surgery was risky given the donor’s history of drug use and incarceration, and that the hospital and transplant doctors misrepresented the risks involved.
A trial court found the reports deficient and dismissed the case. The appeals court agreed, saying neither report showed “a connection between the donor’s alleged high-risk status and the rabies virus. … Joshua was injured by rabies, a condition of the donor that no one was aware of at the time of the surgery.”
The judges said that “expert reports need not demonstrate all of a plaintiff’s proof, but they must explain the basis of the expert’s statement to link the conclusions to the facts.”
Having been involved in many medical malpractice cases, I know first hand of the difficulties in obtaining a medical expert’s report that is not conclusory and that adequately addresses the standard of care, the conduct that involves the deviation of the standard of care, the damages that result and the causation ie how the deviations caused the damages.
In other words the doctors who write these reports have to understand complex legal theories and case law in order to write reports that pass muster with the court. Doctors are not lawyers and because of their training they do not understand the legal basis of the claim. They understand the medicine but these reports are not about the medicine but law. You therefore have no medical personnel unless they have a legal background or exposure, being able to write these legal treatises which is basically required to pass the court’s muster.
Meanwhile in California…
State public health officials have fined 12 California hospitals for medical errors that hurt or killed patients, according to a report. Three of the hospitals — L.A. County/USC Medical Center, Torrance Memorial Medical Center and Brotman Medical Center — are in Los Angeles County.
The penalties were issued for errors such as leaving foreign objects in patients’ bodies during surgery and administrating the wrong medication. They occurred in 2009 and 2010. The fines, which hospitals can appeal, range from $50,000 to $75,000 for each mistake.
“Most of these are preventable medical errors,” said Ralph Montano, spokesman for the California Department of Public Health. “Either someone was harmed or killed or likely to be harmed.”
So here you have it folks, the rich get richer and the usual poor plaintiffs get the short end of the stick.